Utah judge rejects proposed deals on FLDS trust

She says proposals give back too much control to the church.

The Salt Lake Tribune/July 23, 2009

A Utah judge has rejected four different proposals aimed at settling disputes over a property trust once controlled by a polygamous sect, leaving the trust's future management uncertain.

Third District Judge Denise Lindberg said there was no consensus on any of the proposals and in particular singled out plans put forth by the Utah Attorney General's Office and the FLDS church for criticism.

Those proposals, Lindberg said, gave too much control back to the FLDS church and fell short of the religious neutrality principle required of the United Effort Plan Trust.

The judge said she would proceed with a hearing on the proposed sale of the trust's Berry Knoll Farm on July 29 and would then investigate options for the trust's continued administration.

That might include cobbling together parts of the various proposals, modifying the trust -- or even terminating it altogether, Lindberg said.

The United Effort Plan Trust holds virtually all property in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., where a majority of residents are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The trust was originally set up in 1942 by members of the fundamentalist Mormon community, who were then part of what was known as "The Work." The trust was designed to facilitate the group's effort to live communally in a "United Order" and practice plural marriage.

The trust was placed under court oversight in May 2005 after several lawsuits targeted its assets and former trustees, all sect members, were accused of mismanagement. Salt Lake City accountant Bruce R. Wisan has managed it since then.

Lindberg reformed the trust in 2005, clarifying that it is a secular, charitable entity unconnected with any religious purposes.

Lindberg said the proposal put forth by the Utah Attorney General's Office and the FLDS church -- there were actually two separate proposals that were similar but not identical -- "decidedly" favored sect members to the detriment of other potential beneficiaries and failed on "fundamental" grounds. She said both proposals gave the vast majority of the trust land -- Berry Knoll Farm, the Harker Farm, all vacant residential lots, all commercial lots, Cottonwood Park, the zoo, most of a cemetery and property in nearby Apple Valley -- to the FLDS church. A limited amount of residential property and other land was set aside for non-FLDS members in those plans.

"This is hardly a neutral allocation of benefits among potential beneficiaries," the judge said in her decision.

Giving the property back to the FLDS church would violate constitutional and trust law, the judge said, particularly because of the sect's open practice of plural marriage.

"I read it like she does," said Jeff Shields, one of Wisan's attorneys. "The proposal were flawed. They had constitutional problems."

But he said it may be possible to still negotiate a settlement that implements the trust "in a way that is fair to all beneficiaries. We think we can do that."

The judge said she reviewed and rejected two other settlement proposals -- one by Elissa Wall and the other by William and Sterling Harker, both of whom have lawsuits pending against the trust -- but said they were too narrowly focused to be workable.

Attorneys Rod Parker and Ken Okazaki, who represent FLDS members, called the ruling "disappointing."

"We had expected the court would at least accept the proposal we and the AG had worked on so hard on because it provides an exit strategy for the court," Parker said.

They said it is impossible to ignore religion, given the origins of the trust and the continued participation of beneficiaries who are FLDS members.

"The church is, in some form, a party here," Parker said.

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